In a joint interview with PEOPLE, Barbara Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, Lauren Bush Lauren and Wendy Wear Stapleton talk about the message of the third annual George H.W. Bush Points of Lights Awards celebration, which will be held Tuesday night in New York City. (The gala will also be streamed live here.)
The Bush women serve as event co-chairs. In their PEOPLE chat, they share how they’ve navigated the pandemic — Barbara, who just had her first baby with husband Craig Coyne, jokes she and Coyne spent much of the time living in her parents’ “basement” in Texas — as well as what it’s been like raising their little ones and how they’re rallying together as a family to keep the 41st president’s memory alive through good works.
“This is not a quote from our grandfather, it’s from Mr. Rogers: ‘Look for the helpers,’ ” says Barbara, 39, admitting that she’s “tearing up” thinking about her “Gampy.”
“I feel like this past year and a half has been a good reminder to look for the helpers, which is, of course, why we’re honoring those that will be honored,” she continues.
Turning the corner on 2020 into 2021 offered its own chance for reflection — to take stock of the hardships of the first year of the pandemic and look ahead to challenges and bright spots, like the vaccines.
“I think many of us thought at the beginning of this year, that this year was going to look different,” Barbara says. “Of course, that’s not exactly what happened, which is why it’s so important to … look for people that are trying to stay positive and serve others and make a difference in whatever way they can. Obviously, that was incredibly important to our grandfather.”
The George H.W. Bush Points of Lights Awards celebration will honor well-known change makers like Francine A. LeFrak, founder of the eponymous foundation, and Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as “Points of Light Inspiration Spotlights” that celebrates individuals making an impact in their communities and the world.
John Legend will make a special appearance (as will Dr. Anthony Fauci), with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama serving as honorary co-chairs.
“I’ve been studying a lot about the process of healing and one thing that’s incredibly important in healing is even at your lowest point, you can lift somebody else up and the action of doing that lifts you up,” says Stapleton, founder and the chairman of the Board of the Greenwich International Film Festival, of her uncle. “I think he knew that innately his whole life and, even more so, towards the end of his life.”
Barbara, the twin daughter of former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, also values this trait. It’s one of the reasons she’s such a fan of honoree Bryan Stevenson. Hager remembers the day her sister met Stevenson for the first time. They were all boarding an airplane when Barbara spotted Stevenson and insisted on going “against the current” to thank him.
“Barbara, people are still boarding this aircraft,” Hager, a Today co-host, remembers telling Barbara. “That is very dangerous. You are very small, there’s a lot of people getting on with large bags. Stay seated.”
Barbara made her way forward, despite her sister’s warning.
“She stood up, she went against the current, she’s getting shaken each way … She goes, and she thanks him,” Hager recalls. “She comes back and I was like, ‘I cannot believe you just did that.’ She was like, ‘You know how many lives he’s changed? When you meet a hero and somebody that does work like that, you always have to say thank you right away.’ “
When the Bush women aren’t celebrating others, they’re busy with their own work and spreading messages of hope.
Lauren, 37, who just welcomed her third son, Robert Rocky, in April, is continuing her work with FEED, the accessory company she founded that sells products to also help hungry children around the world.
“Unfortunately, as a result of the pandemic, the issue of hunger globally and here in the U.S. is so much worse,” says Lauren, who wants to embrace this “precious” family time and be a great CEO. “So many more families are in need of food support … On that front, I feel a sense of urgency. I’m inspired to do more and do more quickly.”
Hager also has her hands full, at home and in the studio.
“I was saying today to Hoda, I really am living week by week,” she says of her job with Today‘s Hoda Kotb. In August 2019, she welcomed her third child, son Henry Harold “Hal” Hager.
“My little baby is going to a Mother’s Day Out situation, a preschool, he’s only 2 and so we have three different schedules for three little people,” she explains of life with three kids, including daughters Mila and Poppy.
Both Hager and Lauren want to keep the past generation’s memory alive for their new babies, who never got to meet their great-grandparents: the elder President Bush, who died in November 2018 some seven months after the death of his beloved wife, Barbara Bush.
“I know that all of us would give anything to have a moment to have a conversation with him and our grandmother” about the pandemic, says Hager. “My son … he’s such a COVID child and never got to meet them. They were such interesting conversationalists and they surrounded themselves with such cool people from all walks of life.”
Hager says she plans to honor her grandparents’ memory by teaching her kids about service.
“When my grandfather was in a wheelchair and really couldn’t get around, he shaved his head to honor this little boy who had cancer,” Lauren adds. “That was such an amazing, selfless act to show that you can do things that are big and small. That really makes such a difference. I hope to personally live like that, but I hope to also let my boys have that example as well, even indirectly.”
Barbara has had her own family life to navigate. She married actor and writer Coyne in October 2018 and says they’ve spent “the majority of the last year” with her parents at the Texas ranch.
Her sister clarifies: “They live in their basement.”
“That’s not true,” Barbara says.
“Metaphorically, you do.”
“Metaphorically, we live in their basement,” says Barbara, who is continuing her work with her organization Global Health Corps, where she serves as board chair. “We always lived in their basement metaphorically, but on a literal standpoint, we did live with them for the majority of the past year. We won’t anymore. That’s a big step, moving out of your parents’ house when you’ve moved back in, in your 30s, but we’re doing it.”
While Barbara and Coyne didn’t expect to stay so long, they’ve enjoyed this special time with the former president and first lady.
“There’s something really lovely about the simplicity of being with someone every day, rather than when we normally are with our family where it’s around the holidays,” she says. “Instead, we could have quiet moments with them and we would take the dog for a walk after dinner every night.”
Barbara adds, “The downtime of just being together has been really beautiful. I know it’s something that I’ll always remember and likely will never have again. That’s been a real bonus of what has been an unusual and complicated year.”
While the country remains divided, the Bush cousins remember their late patriarch and matriarch’s values — and belief in service to others — to find a path forward.
“I think what has been interesting and hard about this past year and a half is that we forget other people’s humanity,” says Barbara. “We all are aware that we’re very divided and that requires each of us to take a step of trying to listen to other people and get to know them.
“It sounds so simple. It’s like a soft skill, rather than a hard skill — and yet it’s so critical,” she continues. “Our grandfather really led with love. And love isn’t really something that you think of when you think of what is a leader going to act like. You think of decisiveness, you think of strength. Love can be a strength in that way also.”
The George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards celebration will be held Tuesday (8 p.m. ET) and streamed online.